Sunday, October 19, 2014

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #7: John Dies at the End

I’ve never read David Wong’s novel, or its just-as-wonderfully-titled sequel ‘This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It’, but I have it on good authority that it’s a madcap romp through multifarious horror genre tropes that manages to be deadpan sarcastic even as its narrative becomes increasingly ludicrous.

Perfect fit for Don Coscarelli, then.

And indeed Coscarelli delivers a film of such no-budget demented inventiveness that it makes his earlier ‘Bubba Ho Tep’ look as staid and austere as your average Strindberg play.

Opening with the old perceptional hook of whether an axe that beheaded someone and subsequently has its handle and then its blade replaced can be displayed as the same axe – only using a neo-Nazi zombie and some weird otherworldly kind of slug creature by way of illustration – ‘John Dies at the End’ continues in equally discursive fashion as David (Chase Williamson) narrates to seedy journalist Arnie (Paul Giamatti) the events which led to him and eponymous best bud John (Rob Mayes) damn near brokering the end of the world.

To say what ensues is a shaggy dog story is to make the hitherto shaggiest of dogs look virtual bald by comparison. David, possessed of a number of preternatural abilities including telepathy, precognition and astral projection, spends a decent chunk of the running time recapping how he and John found themselves working as … well … I would say ghostbusters, but Vengler and co would have to spend a lot of time on Cheech and Chong’s couch in order to approximate anything like David and John’s approach to the craft. 

Long story short, it’s exposure to a drug nicknamed “soy sauce” – a narcotic that’s more H.P. Lovecraft than ‘Breaking Bad’ – that imbues them with their abilities. During their misadventures, David ends up babysitting a labrador that belongs to his crush, the winsome Amy (Fabianne Therese), and what the drug does to the dog would make the judges at Crufts doubt their sanity. This established, we segue into the real story of David and John’s race against the clock to uncover the truth behind a spate mysterious deaths and the existence of a oddball cult who worship a Cthulu-like entity, all the while evading the psychotic interventions of a Bible-bashing detective.

It’s a story that encompasses a meat demon, a womanising televangelist, a church full of half naked people wearing freaky masks, a Rastafarian psychic who knows the date the first nuclear missile will land on America (and still has a chuckle about it), a decidedly literal case of phantom limb syndrome, the worst garage band ever to get their hands on an amplifier, a cartoon in which human sacrifices are made to giant spiders, and the most juvenile visual joke about a doorknob ever committed to film.

Oh, and there’s a deus ex machina involving a pick-up truck and the aforesaid dog. In fact, the dog is nothing short of heroic. The dog is called Bark Lee, he plays himself, and his performance is magnificent.

Working with a budget that didn’t cast its shadow quite as far as million, Coscarelli delivers a solidly-made film with acceptable effects, good cinematography and a cluster of likeable performances. Giamatti, who seems to be coasting of late, has a hell of a lot of fun; Mayes and Williamson are absolutely spot-on and play off each other beautifully, and Clancy Brown is terrific as televangelist Marconi.

‘John Dies at the End’ is utterly bonkers. It defies any real critical framework in terms of appraisal, firing off wild scattershot broadsides at genre, convention and audience expectation – beginning with the title and even ricocheting through the end credits. It’s a film that’s rated WTF and best viewed in SuperSpliffVision. It’d take an utter dullard not to get ecstatically and crazily lost in its labyrinth of absurdities.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #6: The Thing (2011)

There’s an awkwardness to Matthijs van Heijningen Jr’s ‘The Thing’ that is immediately discernible from its title, which suggests a remake of John Carpenter’s bona fide classic (in my humble opinion, still the greatest horror movie ever made), which is in itself a remake of Howard Hawks’s ‘The Thing from Another World’, and all of them to a greater or lesser degree inspired by John W Campbell Jr’s novella ‘Who Goes There?’ 

But ‘The Thing’ (2011 version) – hereinafter referred to as ‘TT11’ to prevent repetitive strain injury – is actually a prequel. Only it adheres very explicitly to Carpenter’s film … except when it retro-engineers itself to fill in the lacunae … only the lacunae are there in Carpenter’s film to provide a visceral undertone of irony. Let’s face it: the trip to the ruined Norwegian base gives us just enough clues to realise that what happened there is just about to kick off at the American base.

And therein lies the problem. If ‘The Thing’ is about how an assimilative alien being decimates a research station full of big hairy Americans, then a prequel must necessarily depict how an assimilative alien being decimates a research station full of big hairy Scandinavians in almost exactly the same manner. No, wait, backtrack a minute: a research station full of big hairy Scandinavians and one very attractive American.

‘TT11’ starts with palaeontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) recruited by prissy scientist Dr Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) to fly out to the Norwegian base at a moment’s notice to give her professional opinion on something rather unclassifiable that they’ve just retrieved from the ice; and before you can say “obvious sop to US audiences” the winsome Ms Winstead is acting as a surrogate for the audience as her oddly-vowelled paymasters release the aforementioned alien being from its frosty hibernation and … well, you’ve seen the vastly superior Carpenter film, so you know the rest.

It’s astounding how obsessively ‘TT11’ clings to ‘The Thing’, right down to the big “let’s use a blood test to determine who’s infected” sequence. Granted, ‘TT11’ contrives a way to make the blood test not viable, and the alternative at least suggests a smidgin of originality, but the scene pays off so routinely that it squanders the opportunity to do something different and surprising with the material.

Perhaps the only truly interesting thing ‘TT11’ does is at the very end. With Kate posited as final girl from the outset, the film ends on a note that initially seems like just another sop to its predominantly homeland audience. Except that it communicates a single, devious implication that works its way into your consciousness a few minutes after the end credits have rolled. A decent touch, but too little too late. Ultimately, ‘TT11’ is reasonably well-made film, rich in attention to detail, that has no reason whatsoever to exist.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #5: Toy Story of Terror

Woody (Tom Hanks) and the gang are passing the time during a cross-country drive. The trunk of a car can be a dark and claustrophobic place so they distract themselves by watching a horror movie on a laptop. Which is kind of like an ophidiophobe chilling out with ‘Snakes on a Plane’. And it doesn’t help that Mr Pricklepants (Timothy Dalton) – who really ought to be called Mr Smartypants – keeps talking over the film, giving a running commentary on horror movie tropes and how the narrative plays out. When a flat tyre strands them at a dreary and, more to the point, isolated motel, Mr Pricklepants is in his element, confidently predicting that before too much longer the group will be split up and “picked off one by one”.

Confidently and accurately.

‘Toy Story of Terror’ may only be a short, but it’s as rich in ideas, inventiveness and entertainment as any of its feature-length brethren. While presenting a mildly scary tale for kids, the litany of horror genre lore and specific movie references that it throws out ensure its no less entertaining for adults. Indeed, the unforced panache with which its homages are staged – be it a shower curtain placed centrally in a tense cat-and-mouse scene or Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) declaring “I’ll be right back” – is a delight. It even teases the knowing adult audience with the possibility of Jessie the Cowgirl (Joan Cusack) as final girl.

Speaking of whom, the film neatly keys into its predecessors, relying on Jessie’s backstory from ‘Toy Story 2’ to generate tension: her claustrophobia when she’s accidentally locked in a tool box in an early scene foreshadows her requirement to be sealed in a box during the denouement when she has to … Ah, but that would be telling. Moreover, the solidarity of the toys holding hands as they slide inexorably towards the furnace at the end of ‘Toy Story 3’ is subverted as the group are split up during the genuinely tense middle section. Likewise, a sequence of captivity and attempted escape also echoes that instalment.

How scary is it? Well, there’s nothing that reaches the clammy heights of the furnace set-piece, or even the evil playhouse that is Sid’s bedroom in ‘Toy Story’. Nor is there anything as squirmily tense as the airport sequence in ‘Toy Story 2’. But as a comedy-horror, it works brilliantly. It works because, like the absolute best of Pixar, it’s been made with care and wit and attention to detail. Director Angus MacLane, who co-wrote it with Pixar stalwart Andrew Stanton, understand the horror genre; they know when to spoof and when to scare.

Am I making it sound like ‘Toy Story Does Scream’? Then so be it, but with the caveat that ‘Toy Story of Terror’ is funnier, cleverer and more sophisticated than ‘Scream’ – and, at 21 minutes, mercifully shorter.

Friday, October 10, 2014

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #4: Blood: the Last Vampire

Chris Nahon’s visceral pop art opus sets itself the challenge of melding a ‘Kwaidan’-style backstory of a peaceful villager’s transformation into a vampire hunter with a 1970s set main plot that mixes tradition, militarism and a Japanese/American culture clash melee of frenetic and hyper-stylized action.

Wait a minute, what the fuck am I talking about? ‘Blood: the Last Vampire’ is a hopeless bit of nonsense about a hot Japanese girl in a sailor suit who despatches vampires with a bloody big sword.

Or, only slightly expanded from the above synopsis, ‘Blood: the Last Vampire’ is about Saya (Gianna Jun), a three-hundred year old vampire killer (the longevity is due to the fact that she’s a vampire herself) who looks like she’s still in high school. Which is the perfect cover for her handler Michael Harrison (Liam Cunningham) to send her to a military academy on a US base in Toyko in the early 70s. Here she joins forces with the base commander’s rebellious daughter Alice (Allison Miller) while the shadowy organisation she works for – the Council – tears itself apart in a miasma of intrigue and treachery. Meanwhile, Saya’s centuries old nemesis, a demon named Onigen, waits in the wings.

The plot is at once stupidly simple and nonsensically overcomplicated, with the machinations of the Council ramped up to almost court-of-the-Borgias intensity for no other reason than to effect a Saya-goes-on-the-run plot point. The stakes are either world-shatteringly important or non-existent, depending on what scene you’re watching and how many proscribed substances you imbibed prior to watching the film.

What it all boils down to, though, is the entertainment value in watching a schoolgirl with a sword take down legions of the undead. Yet even with so basic an aesthetic driving it, ‘Blood: the Last Vampire’ falters. Jun certainly looks the part and she has a thousand yard stare that could make the entire cast of ‘Sons of Anarchy’ think twice about it, but her facility in the action sequences is painfully limited, and the more extended an intricate the action gets, the more desperate the editing techniques to disguise it. There’s so much of that speed-up-slow-down-speed-up nonsense that you’d swear you were watching a Guy Ritchie film on crack. Elsewhere, a scene where Onigen morphs from human form to demon and leads Saya on a rain-swept roof chase, the latter crashing through neon signs in pursuit, should have been edge-of-the-seat awesome … except that the neon sign looks like it was done in crayon by a five-year-old with no hand-eye co-ordination and Onigen resembles nothing more than a morbidly deformed wine gum.

The 1970s setting is completely arbitrary, the period evocation never convinces and the music cues are all over the place. A title card telling us we’re on an American base in 1970 is immediately superseded by a shot of some kids grooving in a corridor to Chuck Berry’s ‘You Never Can Tell’ (a big hit in 1964 that didn’t enter the charts again until Emmylou Harris covered it in 1978). The performances are uniformly turgid with even, sad to say, Liam Cunningham phoning it in. The action, as noted above, is ruined by the way it’s edited, and the gouts of CGI blood which accompany every swing of Saya’s sword look less like blood than pencilled-in motion capture of a carton of Ribena exploding.

All in all, it’s utterly dreadful, but dreadful in a way that’s strangely compelling. It’s a car-crash of a movie – mangled, broken, almost unrecognisable as an example of the form. You know you should show some common decency and look away but … you … just … can’t.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #3: Scream, Blacula, Scream

Whereas ‘Blacula’ is a surprisingly faithful, if not adaptation, then reconsideration of Bram Stoker’s novel, ‘Scream, Blacula, Scream’ jettisons any connection with the source material. And the result is a mixed bag. 

With cursed nobleman and reluctant bloodsucker Mamuwalde (William Marshall) decomposing at the end of the first film courtesy of a self-inflicted vampire/sunlight interface, director Bob Kelljan and no less than three scripters turn to voodoo to resurrect him. The film begins with a dying voodoo matriarch choosing diligent apprentice Lisa (Pam Grier) as her successor over her hot-tempered son Willis (Richard Lawson). Willis responds by acquiring Mamuwalde’s bones, intent on conjuring the vampire as a servant who will do his bidding and help secure what he sees as his rightful heritage. Predictably, this plan goes tits up and it’s Willis who finds himself in servitude to Mamuwalde.

In short order, Mamuwalde puts together a small army of the undead, attends a swinging party hosted by ex-cop and antiques collector Carter (John Mitchell) and meets Lisa. Looking at some African pieces that Carter is curating for a university, Mamuwalde recognises some jewellery that belonged to his long-dead wife Nuva. As with the first film, it is Mamuwalde’s romantic nostalgia for his lost love that humanises him but instead of seeking a surrogate, here he enlists Lisa’s help to lift the curse.

However, nothing in life (or in blaxploitation/horror crossovers) goes to plan, and Carter’s still-on-the-force colleague Lieutenant Dunlop (Michael Conrad) finds himself investigating several suspicious deaths, all with the same MO: puncture marks on the skin, and complete exsanguination. Misreading the face-palmingly obvious clues, he correlates the puncture marks with snakebites and snakes with voodoo and lays a strip for Willis’s pad. And thus the race against time for Lisa to complete the ritual before Dunlop and his boys lay siege.

Except that “race against time” suggests an urgency that ‘Scream, Blacula, Scream’ just doesn’t have. The rivalry for the heirdom of the voodoo clan establishes tension in the pre-credits scene, but Mamuwalde’s immediate dominance of Willis curtails that particular plot thread. Dunlop’s investigation, which counterpoints the main story, is so plodding and shambolic he makes Columbo look like Dirty Harry. And as for said main plot - Mamuwalde’s courtship of Lisa to release him from his curse – there is little dramatic or romantic dynamic in play. Consequently, much of the film consists of unconnected scenes lurching disjointedly towards a fairly small-scale denouement.

On the plus side, Marshall is every bit as commanding as he was in the original and his contemptuous disposal of a couple of jive-ass pimps is a moment to savour. Grier, too, is always worth watching, even though the script gives her a grand total of two pro-active moments, neither of which happen till the last ten minutes. The absolute best element of film, though, is the way it filters voodoo through vampire mythology and manages to play what is frankly a bonkers conceit with utter straight-faced bravado.

‘Scream, Blacula, Scream’ is to be applauded for not simply repeating its predecessor’s one-off concept of taking a timeless classic and putting a specific cultural spin on it; for instead striving towards a narrative and a direction that an entirely its own. Even if it doesn’t quite hold together as tightly ‘Blacula’, it gathers up a small collection of interesting ideas and runs pell-mell with them, even if some of them get dropped along the way.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #2: Blacula

Blending the horror and blaxploitation genres, and saddled with a title that seems to promise dumbass spoofery plus VAT, William Crain’s ‘Blacula’ actually emerges as a thoughtful and surprisingly faithful transportation of Stoker’s original from 1780s Transylavania to 1970s Los Angeles. Indeed, Crain opens his film at Castle Dracula in the last years of the eighteenth century as the aristocratic Mamuwalde (William Marshall) and his wife Luva (Vonetta McGee) petition Count Dracula (Charles Macaulay) to support their campaign against slavery. Dracula quickly shows his true colours (dude’s all for enslavement and subjugation) and punishes his guests for their liberal agenda by turning Mamuwalde into a vampire only to lock him in a coffin to deny him his bloodlust, and locking Luva in a crypt with said sealed sarcophagus until she expires of natural causes.

So far so cynical. Not a hint of comedy or satire. The animated opening credits sequence suggests otherwise, however, and some low-brow humour threads its way through the next sequence as the narrative jumps forward two centuries and a pair of camp antiques dealers visit Castle Dracula, on the market following a downturn in the estate’s fortunes, and cart off everything they can get their hands on, including the still-padlocked coffin containing the undead Mamuwalde. As soon as the action shifts to American soil, though, a more sombre tone predominates. Mamuwalde, seemingly nonplussed by the passage of two hundred years and entirely at home in streets bathed in neon and bustling with automotive transport to a soundtrack of R&B, swiftly notches up his first few victims.

The LAPD demonstrate a lack of concern at the pile-up of bodies, largely on account of their ethnicity. So it’s left to socially motivated coroner Dr Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala) to make the connections – exsanguination; bite marks; corpses mysteriously disappearing from morgues – and try to cajole jaded homicide dick Lt Peters (Gordon Pinsent) into taking the case more seriously. But things are about to get closer to home than Thomas imagined when his wife Michelle (Denise Nicholas)’s younger sister Tina (McGee again), the spitting image of the long-dead Nuva, attracts Mamuwalde’s attention.

‘Blacula’ boasts a brisk narrative that unfolds as both a gothic romance (the undead nobleman’s grand quest for his lost love) and a police procedural (Thomas – the film’s Helsing stand-in – and Peters working together to track down the vampire). Crain flips between the two strands with ease, maintaining both tension and a shadowy sense of inevitability. Although the script hardly gifts anyone with memorable dialogue, and the performances are generally adequate to the material and no more than that, ‘Blacula’ benefits immeasurably from its two leads. Marshall brings a dignity and gravitas to Mamuwalde that I really wasn’t expecting in a film with such a bad pun as a title (it says something that, apart from Dracula’s pre-credits curse on him, the character is steadfastly referred to as Mamuwalde throughout; the name “Blacula” is spoken maybe twice). Rasulala, too, has immense screen presence and grittily stripped down acting style reminiscent of Clint Eastwood. The ladies of the cast fare less well, but that’s more to do with underdeveloped roles. McGee is a sympathetic presence and Nicholas, in her debut film appearance, makes an impression.

The balance between Mamuwalde as tragic figure and Mamuwalde as dangerous villain is the fulcrum on which the success of the film depends – and Crain as director and Marshall as performer achieve the balancing act with aplomb. The subterranean finale creates an extraordinary dynamic between these aspects of the character, leading to a final scene that’s iconic and poignant and maybe even a tad Nietzschean.

‘Blacula’ had been on my radar for a while without my actually knowing much about the film. I approached it expecting B-movie tomfoolery and came away impressed by a thoughtful and entertaining piece of craftsmanship.

Friday, October 03, 2014

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #1: Apollo 18

The found footage genre has one essential flaw. I don’t know if there’s a collective or cultural description for it, but let’s go ahead and make one. Let’s call it Just Drop The Fucking Camera And Run You Doofus Syndrome.

Prime example of JDTCARYDS: ‘Cloverfield’. Big monster stomps all over hipster party – drop the camera and run, you doofus. Guy touting camera sees girl he likes in a state of emotional distress – drop the camera and go be a gentleman, you doofus. Guy touting camera happily goes strolling through military installation – not one rifle butt to the head or instruction to drop the camera ensues.

All damn found footage movies suffer from JDTCARYDS, even when it’s popped on a tripod and left to record ghostly goings-on overnight, a la ‘Paranormal Activity’, although in this example it’s more a case of Just Quit With The Home Movies And Go Sleep In Another Room You Doofus Syndrome.

All damn found footage movies … except one. Because how about if the camera was built into your spacesuit and you were running anyway?

Ladies and gentlemen, ‘Apollo 18’. Granted, it has a concept that sounds like barrel-scraping of highest (or should that be lowest?) order: hey guys, no-one’s made a found-footage movie in space yet! How cheap can we build an egg-carton lunar module? But at a taut 84 minutes and boasting a genuinely imaginative approach to the sub-genre, it emerges as a claustrophobically tense piece of work.

Writer Brian Miller and director Gonzalo López-Gallego get things right from the outset by wearing their influences like badges of honour: this ain’t ‘Blair Witch’ in space; this taps into a more primal and visceral stratum of fear. ‘Apollo 18’ is about isolation, about claustrophobia, about not knowing who to trust, about the terrifying realisation that there will be no rescue party, no escape route, no-one to help you. ‘Apollo 18’ taps into the same strand of horror that informed ‘Alien’ and ‘The Thing’, and it’s clear that the creative team behind it knew exactly what they were doing.

The film starts in typical found footage style with a seemingly disconnected stringing-together of grainy clips: the astronauts in training for their mission, to-camera vox-pops, home movie footage of families and barbecues. What’s impressive is how quickly small scraps of information cohere into subtle characterisation. Likewise, standard mockumentary tropes suddenly give way to a fully-formed narrative where the stakes are about as high as they get. Miller and López-Gallego sneak things up on the viewer with such legerdemain and Swiss-watch precision that ‘Apollo 18’ is a joy to watch even while it’s scaring the crap out of you. (Although it would be remiss of me, as a reviewer, not to mention that the plot lurches into some pretty melodramatic territory for no other reason than to set up a rather needless twist.)

That said, because of how cleverly and subtly it’s done, I’m loathe to discuss the mechanics of plot. There are some movies you just don’t want to spoil, even moderately, for the viewer who hasn’t yet acquainted themself. Let’s just say that ‘Apollo 18’ plays its hand simply by having an object in the corner of the screen – an object that shouldn’t have any business with mobility – moving very slightly for a fraction of a second. It should be silly; it’s actually terrifying. The film quickly seals the deal with a set-piece involving the descent into a crevasse – the whole thing lit by intermittent flashes of light – that becomes a symphony of half-glimpsed horrors.

From just south of its halfway mark onwards, ‘Apollo 18’ starts ratcheting up the tension and doesn’t give its characters a moment to draw breath until the grimly inevitable denouement. It does a similar job on the audience.